Posted by ESC on February 06, 2000
And now, for something completely different...
"TO HAVE KITTENS - For anyone to confess 'nearly to have had kittens' is a dramatic way of admitting how anxious and scared he had been. For us it is just a metaphor, and no one would dream of taking it literally. Yet the phrase itself goes back to times when women were really worried that, instead of giving birth to a child, they would bring forth kittens.
It was an age when people believed in witches and the mysterious influence of cats, which extended even to their sex life. A black cat, for example, that turned up at a wedding was taken as an omen of good luck and of a fruited union.
A superstition, once prevalent among Scottish people, may be directly responsible for the phrase. This assumed that a woman could conceive kittens, if - unknowingly - she ate any food on which cats had ejected their semen.
In medieval times women, suffering agonizing pain in pregnancy, were assured by witches that its cause was not the growing child but kittens inside their womb, and that only a magical potion could destroy the brood and thereby alleviate their suffering. As late as 1654, a woman tried in a Scottish court for attempting to procure as abortion, pleaded in excuse that she had done so because she had 'cats in her bellie.'." From "How Did It Begin?" by R. Brasch (Pocket Books, New York, 1966).